Beyond Us & Them ... Towards All People
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
You’re at the pub with a Christian friend and her ‘small group’ who seem welcoming and easy-going. But there’s one question that keeps recurring: “So do you go to church normally?” they all ask, casually. Even after a few drinks you realise the true meaning of this:
“Are you an insider or an outsider?”
Most evangelical churches work hard to ensure that they are accessible. There may be a welcome team, free biscuits and music played on popularly recognisable instruments, all of which are designed to enable visitors to cross the threshold from being ‘outsiders’ to being ‘insiders’. While 'us and them' categories are entirely normal, such divisions can lead to a lack of understanding and a mistrust of those different from oneself, in this case ‘non-Christians’ (i.e. the majority of people). The mistrust then acts to further separate 'us' from 'them', which perpetuates an ever-increasing gulf between the two camps. Over time, unless one is desperate, it becomes more difficult to leave, and more difficult to join, while those attempting to live in both camps are often rejected outright. In a fragmented world where groups are increasingly splitting away from each other, do we, the Church, want to be just another exclusive ‘club’ or is it too much to hope that we could instead be bridge-builders?
The most obvious way in which social divisions are traversed is through relationships that cross the threshold, where both parties are honest enough to prevent themselves from being reduced to simply an ‘Other’ – an ‘outsider’. Nevertheless, further investigation reveals that in many evangelical settings, such relationships are often practically non-existent, since the closest relationships that evangelical Christians usually have are with other evangelical Christians. The result is a self-perpetuating echo chamber with surprisingly little communication crossing the boundary.
This happens for a wide range of reasons, some practical, some sociological and some theological. Here are my Top 10 Reasons for the chasm that exists between evangelical Christians and most other people:
Many evangelical Christians do not have time to form deep friendships outside of church. These churches generally value a flatter hierarchical structure to enable all members to 'share their gifts'. Members may lead worship, help with children's church, give sermons or be on the coffee rota, and one could theoretically attend church every night of the week, with home groups, youth groups, Alpha courses, marriage courses, band practice, and so on. On a purely practical level, life consists of ‘us’ – busy in the church community and ‘them’ – the people we don’t have time to get to know very well.
If you spend enough time in a particular social setting, you learn the language of the group. This includes shared in-jokes and references to past shared experiences, as well as norms like how you disagree: while in one setting I can say, “No way – that’s bullshit!” in another, I need to approach more cautiously: “Could you tell me the reasoning behind that opinion?” Once you know the linguistic norms and the short-hands of a group, you become an insider. For outsiders, it is impossible to know the true meaning of phrases or to follow the unspoken rules of etiquette without being present as they evolved. You had to be there!
Comments that demonstrate ‘Insider’ status in an evangelical setting (that also let Outsiders know that they are Outsiders):
‘Have you heard that xx and xy are engaged / are having a(nother) baby?”
‘What is God is challenging you on at the moment?’
‘During my quiet time this morning, I just really felt…’
‘Do you remember at xx and xy’s wedding…’
“God is telling me…”
“You’ve really blessed me today”
“Can I pray for you?”
“Would you like to come to this church event with me on Wednesday?”
“My daughters all have nice, Christian husbands”
Feeling like an ‘insider’ in contrast to the ‘outsiders’ can provide a strong sense of belonging, which comes with benefits that should not be overlooked. As Jean Vanier explains, “Belonging is important for our growth to … inner freedom and maturity. It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centredness that both protects and isolates us.” (Becoming Human 35) Belonging enables people to be vulnerable together, and to express the aspects of their personality that contribute towards the group. However, experiencing this positive sense of belonging can be a strong motivator for keeping the ‘outsiders’ out, where they cannot disrupt the order that currently provides such comfort.
If you are part of an evangelical church, you are likely to have a set of shared experiences that are intense and emotional. You will have sung your heart out, cried your eyes out, laughed your head off and danced your shackles off together (it’s an in joke). You may know each other’s longings, fears and doubts. You will know the same music and hold the same assumptions e.g. everyone is aiming to get married to a Christian of the opposite sex. Having these exclusive experiences and assumptions in common can lead to friendships that go deep. As well as not having the time to make other friends, there may be little desire for further friendships since the need for connection is already fulfilled.
On top of this, for those in evangelical churches, friendship with 'non-Christians' can become a chore because it is so actively encouraged from the “pulpit”. Having no deep friendships with ‘non-Christians’ points to a lack of 'witnessing' (talking about Jesus) to ‘those who need to hear' about Christ (because they’re about to go to Hell). Unfortunately, there is something about the nature of friendship that makes it difficult to sustain as soon as it becomes an obligation. What could be a life-giving relationship turns quickly into another 'should' - another thing to fail at; something else to feel guilty about.
Putting God First
Christians in evangelical churches are told repeatedly to “put God first”, with their “relationship with God” taking priority over all else. Anything which makes them “feel close to God” is more important than trivial matters like hanging out with mates (unless of course that could lead to their conversion). It is as if the relationship with God needs constant reinforcement from those who share the same priorities, otherwise the mind easily slips from "What does God want from me now?" to the more natural "What do I want to do now?" When 'I' exist only insomuch as I am a vessel for God, at best, it can be difficult to relate to people with opposite priorities; at worst, they may be seen as a hindrance or a distraction.
Sins of the Flesh
On top of this, evangelical churches are full of army metaphors and songs to rally the congregation into battle against the 'world', that is, the ‘sins of the flesh’. This is the umbrella term for anything which produces a feeling of pleasure, e.g. sex, desire, alcohol etc. This stance simultaneously creates a suspicion of pleasure in and of itself, and makes it hard to connect with those of a differing viewpoint. It’s pretty difficult to form real friendships with someone when your life work is to destroy the 'world' that they love.
Ultimately, if you believe that some people are going to Heaven and others are going to Hell, it is important that you know which group you belong to. In this instance, belonging is not just a good feeling, it is the main defining feature on which a person’s entire eternal destiny hinges. Staying in the ‘insider’ group is critical to this, and anything or anyone that could threaten that status must be vehemently opposed.
Shame and superiority
Vanier went on to explain, “The human drive for belonging also has its pitfalls. There is an innate need in our hearts to identify with a group ... and to use the group to prove our worthiness and goodness, indeed, even to prove that we are better than others.”(Becoming Human, p36)
As an evangelical Christian, when I was among ‘non-Christians’, I felt an odd combination of superiority and shame. I, at least, knew the ‘rules’, unlike the people I was with. At the same time in their eyes, I was weird because I didn’t share their basic assumptions and experiences. Shame and superiority are in fact two sides of the same coin. While shame is the feeling of unworthiness, superiority reassures and soothes, whispering deceptively that one is not only worthy, but better. This combination then enacts an emotional separation from other people, thereby protecting one from exposure and preventing humiliation. If questioned about one’s faith in this context, it is natural to become vehemently certain, defending one’s faith structures and oneself from the imagined humiliation of being publicly found wanting.
Be on your Guard
One of the self-perpetuating features of the ‘us and them’ mentality is the way that the absence of exposure and presence of certain moral teachings come together to make ‘us’ mistrusting of ‘them’. This is not helped by the way many Christians are taught at all times to ‘be on your guard’ against ‘sin’. Unfortunately, this guard does not provide protection from participating in global, structural wrongs, but generally ends up looking a lot like ‘being on your guard against those outside the group', since those people might make it tempting to join in with forbidden activities. This makes it even more difficult to forge genuine connections.
The onward path
Many who have left evangelical churches will attest to the all-consuming nature of the belonging that they experienced there, but while in church I was an ‘insider’, everywhere else I became an ‘outsider’. It is not easy to live as one who is so socially and morally ‘different’ and separate, and unsurprisingly those of us who grew up going to these churches often find each other later on in life, as if we were both born into the same tribe.
The general feeling of distrust towards those outside the group is particularly difficult to overcome, even after leaving the group itself. This is especially notable for evangelical Christian women relating to ‘non-Christian’ (i.e. the majority of) men. The internalised rules about dressing modestly combined with a negative view of sexuality and the ‘normal’ experiences of our society's every day sexism all lead to a view of non-Christian men as ‘only interested in one thing’. This is a learnt prejudice, which, like all prejudices, demeans the individual by shoe-boxing them into an unkind generalisation. Like all prejudices, it is difficult to un-learn and takes both time and conscious effort.
The night I decided to allow myself to drink as much as those around me and, for the first time aged 28 get a bit drunk, felt like the ultimate liberation. Finally I could let go of the sense of superiority I’d got from standing by while others drank as well as the shame of being ‘weird’ having never experienced it before. This, combined with the social lubricating effect of the alcohol itself, led to a feeling of connection with the people I was with, which has developed over time into easy friendships.
The 'us and them' mentality exists in society in many forms, and on one level is simply a consequence of the formation of belonging. However not all belonging is good. Groups can be open (community), closed (clique), or impenetrable (cult). Of these, only community brings joy beyond its own boundaries since essence is non-judgmental love for the physical person who happens to be in front of you at any one moment, whoever that person may be.
Community is a messy, disruptive interweaving of relationships and moments in which there is enough overlap between people to create a fabric that will stay together for its allotted period, until its time comes to an end. Rather than being threatened by differences of beliefs, ethnicities, sexualities, life-choices or political opinions, community necessarily involves the championing of curiosity over fear; less “Beware, they’re different, stay away!”; more “Wow, they’re different, I wonder why/ how/ what...?” In community, rather than dividing the world into safe insiders and dangerous outsiders, there is room for the full humanity of all people to be seen and accepted. This, I believe, is what we as the Church, are called to develop in the world around us.
“How did we, the human race, get to this position where we judge it natural not just to band ourselves into groups, but to set ourselves group against group, neighbour against neighbour, in order to establish some ephemeral sense of superiority? One of the fundamental issues for people to examine is how to break down these walls that separate us one from another; how to open up one to another; how to create trust and places of dialogue.” (Vanier, Becoming Human, p 39)